Bard, Sale, Feliz, and Samardzija: Rating the Reliever-to-Starter Conversions

Steven Goldman@GoStevenGoldmanMLB Lead BloggerApril 11, 2012

Daniel Bard: The Jury is still out.
Daniel Bard: The Jury is still out.Brad White/Getty Images

It doesn’t take much schooling to learn that two is bigger than one, three is bigger than two, and so on. Yet, in baseball, for years the rule has been that 75 is bigger than 200.

I am talking, of course, about taking promising young pitchers who can pitch out of the rotation or the bullpen and turning them into relievers. Now, some pitchers cannot start due to a lack of endurance, weak secondary pitches, or poor mechanics. But for those for whom teams have the option, all too often the trend has been to shove them down into the bullpen.

For most of baseball history, pitchers with live fastballs went into the rotation. The bullpen was for the rag-arms. For a while now, the practice has almost reversed itself. This represents a fundamental misunderstanding based on the saves rule; it’s just as easy to lose a game in the first through sixth or seventh innings as it is in the ninth. Just as important, though, is the question of volume. Back in 2006, Nate Silver showed that 200 innings of a 3.69 ERA is just as valuable as a 2.00 ERA over 75 innings from a closer. In the years since, the numbers have changed, but the relationship has remained the same: 200 good innings are bigger (and better) than 75.

Recently, teams have seemingly begun to understand this very basic premise. Fans don’t always understand it when a team pulls an eighth- or ninth-inning reliever out of the pen to start, but a Neftali Feliz, Daniel Bard, or Chris Sale (or even, gasp, a Jeff Samardzija) is more useful when stretched out. This is true everywhere except Cincinnati and New York—in the former, Aroldis Chapman is somehow more useful as the bullpen’s third lefty than as a starter, while the Yankees may still be trying to figure out how to best use Joba Chamberlain once he gets back from Tommy John-trampoline recovery.

Rating an experiment on the basis of one start is a lot like getting married after the first date, but let’s indulge in a bit of dangerous grading and rate how things are going so far.

Pitcher: Daniel Bard, Red Sox
First Start Result: Allowed the Blue Jays five runs in five innings, but only walked one and struck out six.
Evaluation: Bard allowed eight hits, and but for a double, they were all singles. Don’t get caught up in those—most of them were grounders and some of those are going to find their way to fielders in future starts. Focus instead on strikeouts, command, and that the ball stayed in the park.
Team Need: Boston’s bullpen hasn’t pitched well, but their starters have been even worse. The greater need is to stabilize the rotation, which will in turn take pressure off of the relievers. Note also that have successfully closed games so far this season include Grant Balfour, Jim Johnson, Hector Santiago, Frank Francisco, and Bryan Shaw—just because you haven’t thought of a particular reliever as a closer doesn’t mean he isn’t one. These pitchers are made, not born, and even if Alfredo Aceves can’t handle the role (one in which he’s wasted, regardless), there will be options other than Bard.
Is the Change a Success, Failure, or Should We Still Keep an Open Mind? Open mind.

Pitcher: Neftali Feliz, Rangers
First Start Result: Pitched seven shutout innings against the Mariners, allowing only four hits while walking two and fanning four.
Evaluation: Well, it was the Mariners, but you can’t argue with these results. Feliz’s velocity was down a bit from his average of 96 mph in the pen as he paced himself, and we have to see how his changeup functions against deeper lineups, but there is no reason to think he can’t do this. Just keep in mind how good Alexi Ogando looked early last season and how he tired in the second half.
Team Need: Joe Nathan lost his first game but has seemed fine since then, and the Rangers have other options if they need to make a move in the future.  
Is the Change a Success, Failure, or Should We Still Keep an Open Mind? Success.

Pitcher: Chris Sale, White Sox
First Start Result: Pitched 6.2 innings against the Indians, holding them to three hits and one run. He walked two and struck out five.
Evaluation: Sale had a three-pitch arsenal as of last season at latest, leading to a lights-out second half. The only real question was if his stuff would pace out over six innings. The White Sox had moved him to the pen to get him to the big leagues faster, not because his ability to start was in doubt. The Indians lineup is hardly that of the ’27 Yankees, but this was promising.
Team Need: The White Sox aren’t going anywhere regardless of who closes, and despite Robin Ventura’s out-of-left field designation of Hector Santiago as closer, Addison Reed will probably get a shot at the position in the near future. The Pale Hose simply don’t need Sale pitching out of the pen.
Is the Change a Success, Failure, or Should We Still Keep an Open Mind? Success.

Pitcher: Jeff Samardzija, Cubs
First Start Result: Went 8.2 innings against the Nationals, allowing three runs (one earned), walked none, and struck out eight. Two of the runs came on a two-out home run in the ninth.
Evaluation: “Shark” pitched extremely well, but it’s hard to fully credit him given just what a bust the former Notre Dame All-American has been as a pitcher. He’s always had good fastball velocity, but command has been a problem, and the Cubs, not knowing what to do, have shuffled him from the bullpen to the rotation and back, with better results in the former. If he has suddenly figured out how to make the ball go where he wants it to, anything is possible.
Team Need: The Cubs’ pen is already 0-3, but it’s not like Samardzija was going to be pitching high-leverage innings anyway.
Is the Change a Success, Failure, or Should We Still Keep an Open Mind? Open mind.